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Rida Vaquas

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The “Woche der Meinungsfreiheit” (Freedom of Expression Week) will take place between 3 (International Press Freedom Day) and 10 May (anniversary of the book burnings) 2024. This is an initiative put together by the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, the recently founded Freedom of Expression Foundation and the Frankfurter Agenturallianz.

The aim of the campaign week is to provide important impetus for the socio-political debate in Germany and to emphasise the importance of freedom of expression and lively debate for a democratic society.

Every year, people from over 100 countries come together at Frankfurter Buchmesse. As part of the "Freedom of Expression Week", we focus on the perspectives of international members of the publishing industry.

What does freedom of expression mean to you personally? What do you think is the biggest challenge to freedom of expression? What can publishers from around the world do to promote freedom of expression?

In cooperation with the IPA (International Publishers Association), we put these questions to colleagues from India, Turkey, Spain, Italy, the UK, Canada and the USA and brought them together here.

Rida Vaquas, Commissioning Editor for non-fiction, Oneworld, UK

What does freedom of expression mean to you personally?

Freedom of expression means the ability to speak the truth: to be able to tell people frankly and unflinchingly what is going on, even and especially when it upsets a government, or a powerful corporation, or an international institution. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, it is always and exclusively ‘the freedom of the one who thinks differently’.

When I think of freedom of expression, I think of those who have fought for it at a terrifying personal cost, like Narges Mohammadi, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and author of White Torture, who, at great risk to herself, recorded the testimonies of her fellow women prisoners in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons.

If we did not have people with her moral fortitude, we would become comfortable with many injustices perpetrated in our names, we would allow the powerful to lie to us.

What do you perceive as the greatest challenge to freedom of expression?

The greatest threat to freedom of expression comes from the cowardice of those who prefer to self-censor or censor others, rather than risk offending the powerful. Our Booker Prize-winning novel, Prophet Song by Paul Lynch charts the descent into a totalitarian dystopia. It opens with an ordinary trade unionist getting questioned by the police for ‘inciting hatred against the state’.

These things always start small: in Germany over the last seven months we’ve seen guest professorships withdrawn, prize ceremonies postponed and art exhibitions cancelled, when artists have voiced their alarm about the horrors unfolding in Gaza. This is a slippery slope, and as part of the creative industry, we need to stand up for authors’ rights to take political positions, to participate in protests, and to voice their discontent, whether they criticise the British state, German state, Israeli state, Iranian state or any state.

What can publishers around the world do to promote freedom of expression?

We need to be willing to publish books that challenge the status quo, particularly from authors who face repression and persecution in their home countries, like Narges Mohammadi. But we also need to be able to protect our authors, by providing rigorous editing, including legal guidance where necessary, to make sure the books we publish accurately portray the truth.

Our commitment to championing underrepresented voices and shedding light on some of the biggest injustices in the world has to be married to a duty of care to our authors who may be endangering themselves in putting their name to their words. Particularly in Britain, where we have some of the most restrictive libel and defamation laws globally, it’s important that exposés of corruption and wrongdoing aren’t undermined by careless mistakes. As a publisher, we’ve had to pay substantial legal costs in order to publish some of the books on our list, especially in the face of intimidation lawsuits. Sticking to our principles isn’t easy, nor is it free.

About the Freedom of Expression Week

Now in its fourth year, the "Freedom of Expression Week" programme promotes the expression of opinion and lively debate for a democratic society. This year's programme includes more than 60 events throughout Germany.

Further information on the programme and the Freedom of Expression Week Charter can be found here.(opens in a new window) 

About Rida Vaquas

Rida Vaquas is Oneworld's Commissioning Editor for non-fiction. She also serves on the editorial board for the Rosa Luxemburg Complete Works in English. She studied History and Intellectual History at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.